Amsterdam may have changed, but for me, it still is The Doors, drugs and a friend named Dave.
I’m not big on regrets; I think we make choices based on our concept of self-interest at the time, so questioning those decisions later seems pretty silly. If, however, I could go back in time, there’s a couple things I’d change.
For openers I wouldn’t have feasted on lemons as a kid. They were on the trees year-round in the Bay Area and that’s how often I ate them. It was a quirk of my odd, sour-craving taste buds, but I’d bite into them like apples and enjoyed the peels as much as the fruit. If I had unsweetened Kool-Aid around I’d sprinkle that on them first, then chew a couple of Bayer aspirin afterwards. (They accented the acute sourness perfectly; I carried a bottle around in my pocket.)
My neighbourhood was crawling with adults and other children. You think one of them would have looked at me and said, “Hey, kid, that’s not right. You’ll lose the enamel on your teeth and the lining in your stomach.” But no, I carried on until both those things happened. My whole mouth is caps now and I can’t tolerate tea, much less coffee or a thousand other delicacies. All because of those ****ing lemons.
Next I would have carried a camera around. I began doing that in my early forties and filled a couple dozen photo albums as a consequence, but before that, zilch. Any snapshots I have from my twenties and thirties were given to me by friends who weren’t exactly shutterbugs either. It’s ironic, with the way everything gets recorded on smartphones now, but back then your pictorial history depended on having a nerd with a Brownie nearby. I’d love a group photo from the mental wards, for instance, or a Polaroid of Lonesome Louie or Nearly Normal Jimmy. (Even one of a wino hotel room.) What’s more, I don’t have sketches from those decades, either, as they correspond with my non-drawing years.
So I was thrilled, when I dug up that Cannabis Cup sketch of Eagle Bill a few months ago, to find a drawing of Diver Dave in the same journal. He was an American I met in Amsterdam the year after the ’95 Cup and, though those were the camera-toting years, I’ve no photos of him.
We were too busy rampaging the streets, I suppose. I visited Amsterdam every year for a decade, from 1991 to 2001. They were trips I couldn’t have afforded if it weren’t for my Irish buddy Sean. He was the older brother of Mark, a character I’d met in the Bay Area in the ’60s, and we’d kept in touch since. When I told him I was planning a visit to Amsterdam he insisted I stay with his brother. He had a two-bedroom apartment there, knew our buddy Gumbo and, after hearing stories about me over the years, was eager to meet me. I protested but Mark, in that welcoming European manner, insisted.
I still wasn’t sure when the plane landed, so just to be safe I booked a cheap hotel room first. Not only did I not know Sean, but what he’d heard of me had died with the drinks years before (at least in my mind). So I was apprehensive right up to the moment I met him. Talk about a character… he did Irishmen everywhere proud. He was smart, he was funny, he had an accent and voice so melodious that he did local radio work and, judging by his buoyant nature and flushed cheeks, he enjoyed the occasional cocktail, too.
Even better… his apartment looked like it had been furnished by a homeless guy. I wouldn’t be putting my boots on the wrong table in that place, and when he showed me the “guest bedroom” – and there was nothing in it but a stained cushion on the floor – I nearly swooned.
“Sorry, Wilson,” he said, “I guess it is rather primitive. I’m sure I can drum up a light bulb, though.”
“Oh no, no,” I said. “It’s perfect… it reminds me of home.”
It was kind of touching, really, like a couple of winos meeting up under an awning years later, except I was a pot grower now and, Sean? Besides the radio work, he taught English (or was it Dutch?) to the stay-at-home wives of businessmen and diplomats. Japanese women, mostly. He visited their hotel rooms or rental apartments, used his affable leprechaun act to bed them. (“Just fulfilling their Anglophile fantasies,” as he put it. “A sort of public service.”) Afterwards he’d slip on his khakis, stride off with his dick and dignity intact. He carried a large leather briefcase and claimed there were work-related materials in there, but Gumbo and I knew it was full of beer: you could hear the pints clinking around.
“Diver Dave” dove headlong into everything… Drugs, women, juggling, spinning a yarn – he was all over it. I’d have done the same. There were no picket fences in his future… he’d be lucky to make it through tomorrow.
I wrote in my last column about my sports saturation as a child but Sean, who grew up in England, was an actual sportsman, the sort of mannered gentleman endemic to the Empire. He ran marathons, for instance, and was greatly offended by the brusque Northern Europeans who’d elbow him out of the way without so much as an “excuse me”. When he and I played ping pong one evening, and I was cursing and carrying on, even slamming the ball against the wall after miscues, he was aghast.
“My God, man,” he said, “you Americans are a crude, craven lot.”
I might have taken offence but I’d seen him drink. Which, like the free roof over my head, worked to my advantage, for as much as Sean and I enjoyed each other, he was a bar rat and I’d been cut from the team, leaving me free to exercise my real Amsterdam Jones, which was to wander that wondrous city for 12, even 15 hours a day.
Sean’s apartment was in the Jordaan, in the northwest corner of town, and I’d head out early in the morning with my own satchel in hand. It was rare to have a particular destination in mind. (I took in the museums and the Rembrandt and Anne Frank houses my first year, and after that never visited them again.) Mostly I just wandered and wondered in the most civilised place I’d ever been. I was in reasonably good shape, having walked at least five miles a day for years back home, but no tourist could prepare their legs and feet for those torturous Dutch cobblestones. After a couple hours I’d stop at a coffeeshop, smoke a joint while drawing postcards for friends. It was a routine I’d repeat throughout my Amsterdam decade, interrupted only by visits to marijuana seed dealers. It was the safest way to replenish my stock (mail order was expensive, undependable and risky), and I’d normally spend a couple thousand on new acquisitions, then sneak them home in a boot heel.
Looking back they might have been the most relaxed times of my life. (My usual stay was three to four weeks.) The stress of pot growing was an ocean away, the locals totally ignored me and when I got horny there were fetching whores behind windows. Not only that: Dutch men and women were so tall, and walked so fast, that I felt like a regular-sized guy in their company; I had only to step outside to be swept up in the current.
Occasionally I’d engage another stoner in conversation, but for the most part I sought empty coffeeshops. This dearth of customers might be a matter of location, or the time of day, or an indication that their pot (and edibles) were poor, but after the first year I brought my own dope with me anyway, so all I needed was hot chocolate and a table to roll and draw on. Which was why, at some point most days, I’d visit the Lucky Mothers Coffeeshop. It was a tiny storefront on the Keizersgracht canal and I was often the only one in there. It was usually so empty, in fact, that I’d be put off when other customers arrived.
Which is how I met Diver Dave. He was a lanky, charismatic guy who’d not only beaten me to Lucky Mothers two days in a row, but taken my favourite table in the bargain, the one facing the canal. The third time it happened he motioned me over.
“What’s your story, Emu Man?” he asked.
Emus? How did he connect me with emus? Then I remembered and looked down. I had a screen printing business at the time, designing tees and sweatshirts for emu and ostrich ranchers. I wore the ones that had blemishes instead of tossing them out and had brought a few along on the trip.
“And you are?” I asked, extending my hand.
He jumped up and gripped it hard. “I’m Diver Dave!” he declared. I never learned his last name, any more than he ever asked me mine. (Pseudonyms were common among stoners then, as even overseas the Drug War was hard to shake.) Turns out he was from Wisconsin, where he’d attended the university on a diving scholarship. After graduating he took off for Europe and he’d been touring the continent since, working as a high diver in circuses.
“A high diver!?” I exclaimed. “One of those guys who dives into a tiny pool from hundreds of feet in the air?”
I was horrified; I might have been tall, but I was deathly afraid of heights. “So what you are you doing here?” I asked. “Is the circus in town?”
“In a way,” he laughed, sparking up a bomber. “It’s the off season, and I’m here for the drugs.”
Which was an understatement that seemed counterintuitive at the time, him being an athlete in a perilous profession, but as I got to know Dave I realised everything was a dice roll for him. I mean, how else would someone who did that for a living be wired? It was educational for me because, at least until that point, I’d featured myself something of an all-or-nothing give a shit. Turns out that (at least when it came to risk) I was barely a sidekick.
I was game, though. I was 49 years old in ’96, and as much as I enjoyed absurdity I was usually too lazy to hunt it down; for that I counted on outliers like Gumbo or Diver Dave, and they rarely disappointed.
Plus Dave had this ineffable star quality. I’d hated circuses since I was a kid, but I’d have paid to see that rogue’s act. When we were walking down the street the usually oblivious locals would stop suddenly, snap their heads around as if they were missing something; “Hey! Who was that guy? Was he an actor? A soccer or tennis player maybe?”, instead of the highest high diver in the Western Hemisphere.
Dave was 35 at the time, and that part of him reminded me of my younger self – i.e., if you could snort it, smoke it or swallow it, he was on board. I’d stuck to eating pot and mushrooms in my Amsterdam stays, for example, but proximity to the Diver added LSD, MDA and opium to the mix. I think there was even some crack smoking in there but really, I was so toasted I barely qualified as a witness. My drug stamina was gone and I knew before they began that the ten days I spent in Dave’s company would constitute the last great binge of my life.
And they were certainly that, a reminder that the best sendoffs are those you wouldn’t (or couldn’t) repeat. Diver Dave, in the meanwhile, slept with so many different women that he didn’t need permanent lodgings. God knows why he wanted me along (an envious onlooker, maybe?) because there was no-one bedding me. Hell, my come-ons were poor enough on pot, much less acid and opium. Everywhere we went (a series of cold, dark canal houses in my memory, filled with oddball Dutch characters), I’d retreat to the nearest corner and leave Dave to it. Afterwards I’d trudge home, then meet him at Lucky Mothers the following day. He was always clear-eyed and beaming, as if he’d actually slept the night before, and the first thing out of his mouth never varied:
“Did you squirm, Emu Man?” He was a Doors fan and this came from a verse in Morrison’s Riders on the Storm:
There’s a killer on the road,
his brain is squirming like a toad.
Yeah, I squirmed: I’d thought my psychedelic days were over and I was right. But I was still a sucker for dissipation, much less truly authentic people. “Diver Dave” dove headlong into everything he did. Whatever his passion of the moment – drugs, women, juggling, spinning a yarn – he was all over it. Hell, if I looked that good and cared that little I’d have done the same. Because there were no picket fences in the Diver’s future… he’d be lucky to make it through tomorrow.
The last time I saw him he accompanied me to the airport for my flight home. I took my place in the security line, and when I looked back he was already hitting on a flight attendant.
I left him my phone number, told him to look me up if he ever returned to the States, but didn’t expect to hear from him. (I’d think about him, though, whenever my brain squirmed.) Then one afternoon nine years later the phone rings.
“Hello?” I said.
“Is this Emu Man?”
“Fuckin’ Diver Dave!?”
“Are you shitting me!?” I had to sit down. “I was sure you’d be dead by now, Bubba.”
“I know!” he exclaimed. “Almost seems unfair, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. And what’s that pounding in the background? I can barely hear you.”
“Well, that’s why I called. I’m in the south of Italy and it seems I put my foot in it this time – or well, at least got caught at it, a married woman and all that, but I was wondering if your offer is still good? If I escape this, and make it back to the States, can I stay with you for a while?”
“Oh, absolutely,” I said.
There was a louder bang followed by a chorus of angry voices. “Great!” he yelled. “See you soon, Emu Man!”
Still waiting, Dave.